Asymmetric Leadership

by Philip Boxer

We have been used to speaking about asymmetry in the context of asymmetric demand and asymmetric governance etc in the blog on asymmetric design. These concepts and practices are being pursued through my work with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

But what of the work associated with Carole Eigen on questions of role and leadership? For me this belongs with another kind of question associated with how leadership is to be understood within the context of an enterprise. So this blog is intended to be a place where I can follow this question. So here goes!

And just for starters, what’s with this idea of asymmetric leadership?

The idea of asymmetry has been used so far to speak of that about the other which remains not known – unfamiliar. So to work with asymmetric demand is to accept a limitation to what the enterprise knows which may challenge the very idea the enterprise has of itself. What we are doing here is starting from the Lacanian understanding of the divided subject – a person’s relationship to themselves in what they really want is by definition asymmetric to themselves. Put another way, however much I might want to know about me – about my wants, needs etc, there will always be something of myself that remains beyond my knowing – that remains personally asymmetric.

So what? Well, it creates a particular challenge for leadership, because the leader is placed between two kinds of asymmetry, in which the identity of the enterprise is constantly emerging out of these two kinds of relation: the first is the leader’s relation to their own identity as having been ‘chosen’ by the enterprise, i.e. personal asymmetry; while the second is the enterprise’s relation to the identity of its customers/patients etc., i.e. demand asymmetry.

The usual way of approaching the challenge of leadership is to express it in terms of the needs of the people working for the the enterprise. But what we want to do here is to extend this, so that the question of the leader’s relation to his or her own identity precedes the question of what identity needs to be realised through the behaviors of the enterprise.

This situates leadership with a challenge: in meeting the needs of the client-customer as ‘other’ (i.e. meeting asymmetric demands), to what extent must leadership go beyond what it knows of itself (i.e. addressing personal asymmetry)? And through what forms of authority is this to become possible and sustainable?

These are the questions that we want to follow here.

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